Review | The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Review by Jason F. C. Clarke
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been around. It started out as a BBC radio comedy series written by Douglas Adams. Adams then wrote the radio plays into a series of novels, which were in turn made into a short-lived television series, a very early computer game, and now, the crown jewel: a movie, the last great frontier for selling out.
I’ve read at least the first three novels, but it was years ago and I don’t remember very much about them, so forgive me for not being the diehard HHGTTG fan that, say, my Caltech-alumnus girlfriend is, or for that matter, anyone who went to one of the major left-brain universities. I’ve seen Adams-scripted episodes of Doctor Who more recently than I’ve encountered any of his Guide work (I’m going to refer to it as Guide, because the actual title is too long to write, and because Hitchhiker’s contains that annoying hyphen and I always have to think twice about whether there are two H’s in the middle, and because HHGTTG is also hard to remember).
I do know that the film, directed by relative unknown Garth Jennings (who has virtually no information on his Imdb entry), is based primarily on a script by Adams, and that the inclusion of a new character named Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) was Adams’ invention (and, I suspect, mainly a plot device to remove Zaphod Beeblebrox’s extra head, which Adams no doubt realized would be a difficult and perhaps annoying special effect in a live-action film–which, indeed, it was).
The storyline of Guide is ostensibly simple: the Earth is accidentally destroyed to make way for some sort of interstellar highway, and the only humans to escape is one Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and Trillian (Zooey Deschanel). Arthur is rescued by Ford Prefect (Mos Def), an alien traveler who works for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, making Ford the intergalactic equivalent of a Let’s Go writer. The two escape the destruction of Earth and end up on a spaceship piloted by Zaphod Breeblebox (Sam Rockwell), the President of the Galaxy and a complete flake, who has also spirited Trillian away. The last member of this motley crew is Marvin the Paranoid Android, who is voiced by Alan Rickman, with Warwick (Willow) Davis in the robot suit.
The rest of the plot concerns something about figuring out the meaning of the universe, which is apparently the number 42 (beloved reference of nerds everywhere). All sorts of strange things happen, revelations are…revealed, and the marvelous Bill Nighy shows up as designer-planet-builder Slartibartfast (who gives my favorite performance in the film).
So the screenplay is messy, even taking into account the story it’s based on. It’s also a little rushed, but I wouldn’t advise trying to follow the plot too closely anyway. Instead, sit back and enjoy the weirdness and the performances, most of which are top-notch. Zooey Deschanel continues her quest to take Reese Witherspoon’s place in the celebrity cosmogony. Martin Freeman makes a fine Arthur Dent. Mos Def looks nothing like I envisioned Ford Prefect, but few actors (with the exception of Tim Quill) would, and Def does fine with the role. Rockwell’s Zaphod is suitably annoying, and Rickman and Davis unsurprisingly steal the show.
The humor is hit-and-miss. The Macromedia Flash-style cut scenes from the Hitchhiker’s Guide are pretty reliably amusing, and the film does some wonderful things with the Infinite Improbability Drive, which allows Zaphod’s ship to travel instantly across time (with the unfortunate side effect of temporarily turning the ship into animals, flowers, and in one amusing case, fabric sculpture). And anything with Marvin is funny.
The film makes an effort to make more of a romantic arc with Arthur, Trillian and Zaphod–allegedly something Adams wanted into the film version. I’m not entirely sure it works, however; all too often, the romantic moments feel a little perfunctory.
But the film offers some lovely eye candy, and the performances ensure that fans are satisfied and non-fans are entertained. The end of the film makes it clear that we’ll be seeing more of Arthur & friends, so in parting I’ll say, see you at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
Jason F.C. Clarke tells people he’s a “freelance writer,” complete with air quotes. He has worked as a news reporter and an editor, among other things. He maintains a blog on writing at www.biggerboat.net. He currently lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.